Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 117, Nos. 1 & 2 (August/September 2009) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
The Art of the Dragon by Sean McMullen
A Token of a Better Age by Melinda M. Snodgrass
The Bones of Giants by Yoon Ha Lee
The Others by Lawrence C. Connolly
Three Leaves of Aloe by Rand B. Lee
The Private Eye by Albert E. Cowdrey
Esoteric City by Bruce Sterling
You Are Such a One by Nancy Springer
Hunchster by Matthew Hughes
Icarus Saved from the Skies by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud
The Goddamned Tooth Fairy by Tina Kuzminski
Snowfall by Jessie Thompson

Poems included:
Obsolete Theories by Sophie M. White

Full review: This issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction continues the high quality of the magazine in most of its stories, but a few noticeable weak efforts mar what could have been an excellent issue, pulling it from the superior range into the "just slightly better than average" range.

The Art of the Dragon by Sean McMullen is a strange fantasy about an art eating dragon, and the worldwide panic that it causes. The motives of the dragon are not completely understood, and the story seems to lie in the shadowy netherworld between science fiction and fantasy. The protagonist offers a possible reason for the existence of the dragon, but the ending is ambiguous and open ended. A Token of a Better Age is another dragon oriented story straddling the line between science fiction and fantasy, this time taking the form of a tale told by a condemned Roman prisoner to another.

Nancy Springer's You Are Such a One is strange ghost story told from the perspective of the ghost, but an unknowing and unwilling ghost. It is a dreamlike and sad story. Matthew Hughes' Hunchster is another sad story, but this time the villainy of the protagonist is knowing and deliberate as a collection of luddite blue collar workers take action in an attempt to halt the technological progress that will destroy their jobs.

As part of the magazine's continuing series of classic reprints, Gordon van Gelder selects Tina Kuzminski's The Goddamned Tooth Fairy, a magical love story between two wounded people who had experienced loss and sorrow. It is an excellent story, with just enough magic to offset the depressing lives of the main characters. The other classic reprint Snowfall, by Jessie Thompson, is a sad story about an abused child who is saved from her terrible situation by magic. The story is well written, but the magic is poorly defined and the story is not particularly convincing. Harlan Ellison introduces the story with a long segment titled The Short, Sad Miracle of Jessie Thompson in which he describes the personal demons faced by the author after her story was published, which explains her lack of subsequent publications. While I feel sympathetic for Ms. Thompson, given how unimpressed I was with Snowfall, I can't agree with Harlan's lamentations about the loss suffered by the genre due to her dropping out of the writing business.

The Bones of Giants by Yoon Ha Lee is a post-apocalyptic story set in a world where necromancy is real. The protagonist allies himself with a sorceress who turns out to be much more than he expects. Icarus Saved From the Skies is a translated story originally written in French by Georges-Olivier Chateaurenaud. Perhaps something was lost in translation, but the story of a man who develops wings and the obsession his wife has with him using them just didn't seem to work. The Others, by Laurence Connolly, is a sequel to the previously published Daughters of Prime and deals with the interactions between a collection of clones working on an alien planet. The clones are supposed to be interchangeable and disposable, but unexpectedly some of them develop independent personalities. This complicates the situation, and causes trouble when they are called upon to avert a threat faced by the subjects of their study.

Three Leaves of Aloe by Rand Lee is a near future science fiction story dealing with an issue that parents may have to deal with - the question of whether to impose technological controls upon their children. The story makes a strong (and I believe correct) statement concerning the limits of state authority and the nature of free will. The Private Eye by Albert E. Cowdrey also deals with free will in a roundabout way, but focuses heavily on the fantasy of paranormal powers. The final story in the issue, Bruce Sterling's Esoteric City is typical of his writing: Opaque, difficult, and bizarre. The story assumes that the world is divided between loci for good and evil, but that Turin, being a mixture of both, lies between them. The story mixes Dante with modern business, throwing in the Holy Grail for good measure. The protagonist confronts Satan with the Grail in hand, to find that Satan has taken the form of a green energy advocate. Satan and the hero both turn out to not be who the reader expected, but that is about par for the course for a Sterling story. I'm not sure if I liked this story or not, but it was certainly one that kept my attention.

In other features, Lucuis Shepard has some interesting commentary on the Watchmen movie. Overall, this is a decent issue with several good stories to keep the reader engaged and entertained. As seems to happen most months, the classic reprints provide both the best story and the worst. Fortunately, the weak stories are among the shortest ones, so the reader can move past them quickly to get to the better, longer entries. In the end, this is a fairly good issue of the flagship magazine of the field, but not one of the best.

Previous issue reviewed: June/July 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: October/November 2009

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